FLY Sax Trio Blasts Off Without the Burn
Its good to hear this group again. Fly, made up of the saxophonist Mark Turner, the bassist Larry Grenadier and the drummer Jeff Ballard, hasnt performed much in the last five years; after starting, it never really had time to develop. This would be strange for a group of such promise, except for the fact that the bassist and drummer both play in Brad Mehldaus trio, a band that works a great deal.
Fly has a new record Sky & Country, on ECM and is reconvening at Jazz Standard through the weekend. Its calmly imposing show on Thursday night made you think meta-thoughts about saxophone trios: what they can accomplish, why they still sound strange. Its been more than 50 years since Sonny Rollins made the saxophone trio viable, but after less than a decade, even he largely abandoned the form; since then, no group in particular has stepped in and established a new language for it.
There can be a kind of heroism or martyrdom in saxophone trios, as the saxophonist burns down his stamina to fill the space left by the lack of a chordal instrument. Fly, though, makes cool-headed music.
Saxophone trios in general, even with the horn player gnashing and wailing, can make a lonely sound: all that open land without chords to cultivate it. For Mr. Turners sensibility, thats all right. He creates tension methodically, by playing with even strength in all registers, from the lowest to the highest, often using scalar patterns or a small bebop quotation in a steady medium speed. Hes seldom rushing anywhere. Hes mysteriously dry and fluent, as he plays and improvises on sequential melodies.
Though he spent last winter recovering from an accident involving a power saw and two fingers on his left hand, I couldnt detect any change in motor skills or at least I couldnt sense his ambitions running ahead of his physical ability.
All three members write for the band, and in a real sense they play cooperatively. In Thursdays early set nobody took unaccompanied solos. In fact, nobody took a traditional kind of solo at all, the kind in which one runs the show, and the others accompany.
Instead, improvised detail and intensity unceremoniously emerged from one musician as the others supported him with repetition, from swing rhythm to a kind of small-scale, indirect funk; none of these sounded like set-piece moments, and the drama dissipated as easily as it appeared.